Dissertations and Theses Year-in-Review, 2020-21

Today is Commencement Day, and though we won’t be gathering to celebrate on Lincoln Center’s new lawn (“The GREEN”), the library’s tradition of celebrating the culminating works of our graduates through this year-in-review post continues unabated.

Many of you have already had a glimpse through the Graduate Center’s Dissertation Showcase event, in which graduates present a 3-min version of their doctoral work. Also be sure to tune into the video tribute at 1pm today to capture that powerful feeling of accomplishment and joy that marks the end of our academic year.

This year, the library accepted 450 new graduate works into our collection: 329 doctoral dissertations, 9 doctoral capstone projects, 84 master’s theses, and 28 master’s capstone projects. Our master’s programs continue to mature, and 2020-21 brought the first thesis deposit from the M.A. Program in Biography and Memoir (“Dancing Through Time: A Biographical Look on the Evolution of Tap Dance,” Jamie Cranford, February ‘21) as well as seven inaugural M.S. in Data Analysis and Visualization capstone projects.

Graduates of the Ph.D. Program in Psychology deposited the most doctoral dissertations this year (57), followed by Music (21), English (17), Earth and Environmental Sciences (16), and Computer Science (16). From the master’s programs, the library accepted 48 theses and capstones from Liberal Studies, followed by Cognitive Neuroscience (16), Political Science (12), Linguistics (11), and Women’s and Gender Studies (7).

The numbers always surprise me—450 is a lot! And yet, the deposits are distributed across such a variety of disciplines, it is impossible to capture the depth and breadth of the Graduate Center simply by pointing to the most numerous programs. I invite you to take a moment to browse all of this year’s dissertations, theses, and capstone projects by program in CUNY Academic Works.

Some of our collection is immediately available to read online, while others are restricted from public view based on the author’s embargo selection; this year, just 36% of students chose to delay the public release of their work, which we might take as an indication of the urgency of getting their research out to the world. Others have already published their work elsewhere—in some programs (especially in the sciences), students include prior publications in their dissertations, which would negate any concerns regarding future publication of the work. As always, researchers wishing to access embargoed dissertations and theses may place an interlibrary loan request with the Graduate Center Library.

The range of topics represented here never ceases to astound me, and though some readers might believe in the adage, “a good dissertation is a done dissertation,” some of these works are simply phenomenal pieces of writing. I can only speculate about how our current circumstances might affect the personal nature of these submissions—but more than once over the past year, while reviewing manuscripts, I was pulled into a deeply moving narrative that stopped me in my tracks. (If there are any acquisitions editors reading this, I’ve got some leads!)

Migration is a recurrent topic in this year’s deposits and it’s represented across programs and from a variety of angles, like the affective experiences of migrants found in Sandra Castro’s “Tears, Trauma and Transformation: Central American Mothers’ Experiences of Violence, Migration and Family Reunification” (Ph.D., Social Welfare, June ‘21) or Isabel Gil Everaert’s  “Migratory Timescapes: Experiences of Pausing, Waiting, and Inhabiting the Meanwhile of Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Mexico” (Ph.D., Sociology, September ‘20).

We saw examinations of contemporary art along the coasts: Meredith Mowder’s “Art After Dark: Economies of Performance, New York City 1978–1988,” (Ph.D., Art History, February ‘21) captures a fascinating moment in our city, while Liz Hirsch (Ph.D., Art History, June ‘21) explores the same period but with a spotlight on Los Angeles in “Inevitable Associations: Art, Institution, and Cultural Intersection in Los Angeles, 1973–1988.”

This year’s dissertations and theses address issues that would appear to come straight from today’s headlines, from work-family reconciliation policies to universal basic income to paid sick leave in the United States; from psychotherapy practice in the digital era to hearing aid services delivered via teleaudiology. Our master’s graduates dove into the phenomenology of femicide and gender discrimination in the field of technology; the politics of same-sex marriage in Taiwan and Juaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s trial in a New York federal court.

Also timely are the many explorations of trans identities, as in Kyla Bender-Baird’s “Standing Trans Before the Law” (Ph.D., Sociology, June ‘21), Sean Miller’s “When Misclassification Is Misgendering: Gender Prediction in the Context of Trans Identities” (M.A., Linguistics, February ‘21) and Flora Wolpert Checknoff’s, “Progress Narratives in Trans Internationalism: Surveying a Collected Archive of the Global Trans Movement, 2008–2018” (M.A., Liberal Studies, February ‘21).

Oscar Pedraza Vargas (Ph.D., Anthropology, September ‘20) tells a gripping tale of political violence and environmental activism in “Many Forms of Black Death: Coal Extraction, Transnational Activism and the Value of Life in Colombia,” while Drake Logan (Ph.D., Political Science, September ‘20) articulates a theory of “contemporary environmental warfare” in “Searching for Pōhakuloa: A Citizen Scientist’s Journey in Aloha ‘Āina.

From a history of lobster palaces in Times Square to a history of bureaucracy through Manhattan sidewalks; from urban transformations in Cairo following the Arab spring to the temporality of trauma and the ethics of cooperation as “shared agency”; from examining disability, infrastructure and autonomy to investigating transportation challenges for people with disabilities, our graduates conduct original research and these works are more than a milestone on the path to a degree: they represent contributions that advance their fields.

I’m, admittedly, not trained to comment on many of the graduate works coming out of the bench sciences, which I lament every year as I write this. This year, I’ve decided to call attention to those works that speak to the value of science communication by offering a compelling abstract legible to me, a non-specialist. (Also, did you know that the GC Writing Center can help you improve your abstract? It’s true!) I was intrigued by Christine Chrissian’s “The C. neoformans Cell Wall: A Scaffold for Virulence,” (Ph.D., Biochemistry, February ‘21), which investigates the relationship between the production of melanin and Cryptococcus neoformans, a “globally distributed opportunistic fungal pathogen” that seems to be responsible for ~180,000 yearly deaths worldwide. Divya Matta (Ph.D., Chemistry, February ‘21) deftly explains why understanding the chemical reactions that occur in natural photosynthesis can help us design better biofuels in “Role of Protonation State Changes and Hydrogen Bonding Around the Oxygen Evolving Complex of Photosystem II” (the title is a mouthful, but that’s why we have an abstract!).

Of course, this post can only highlight a fraction of the 450 deposits accepted this year. To present another view of the topics covered, I offer this visualization of the top keywords selected by students when submitting their work. Policy, performance, inequality, movements, speech, migration, technology—sounds like the GC to me.

Word cloud showing frequency of keywords

Top keywords assigned by students when submitting their dissertations, theses, and capstone projects. View the full list in Voyant Tools.


Now, the milestones:

Longest Dissertation:  A Geospatial Habitat Suitability Model to Determine the Spatial and Temporal Variability of Ulva Blooms in Jamaica Bay, New York” (Kristine Erskine John, Ph.D., Earth and Environmental Sciences, February ‘21) comes in at a hefty 761 pages!

Shortest Dissertation:Do Criminal and Successful (Non-Institutionalized) Psychopaths Differ on Internal, Environmental, and Contextual Characteristics?” (Ahmed Enaitalla, Ph.D., Psychology, September ‘20) logs just 65 pages.

Longest Title:‘The Gifts of Enemies’: The Acteal Massacre, Sociedad Civil Las Abejas and Mexico’s Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional and Humanitarian and Development Aid during The Low-Intensity War, 1997–1999” (Maria Hart, Ph.D., Anthropology, September ‘20)

Shortest Title:Set Operators” (Xiaojin Ye, Ph.D., Computer Science, September ‘20)


Amid all the celebration of our graduates and their extraordinary accomplishments, I want to acknowledge the profound loss that many have experienced—and continue to experience—during this time, even as we stumble along the path towards recovery. One of the joys of my work in the Dissertation Office is the opportunity to meet with students as they depart for the next chapter of their careers, and to witness the celebration that comes with being completely done with their final degree requirement. Throughout the pandemic, many have remarked on the bittersweet nature of celebrating their completion while continuing to wrestle with the crises unfolding around us. Those with family, friends, and communities outside the U.S. have shared stories of heartbreak and struggle that they experienced from afar, watching as the global pandemic rages on outside our borders. I want to hold space for those still suffering, and those anxious about what comes next. But today, we set aside this time to celebrate.

We celebrate the momentous achievement of each and every graduate, and look forward to the day when we can celebrate again in person. I’ll close with Ashna Ali’s words from the 2019 ceremony, the last that was held at Lincoln Center:

“In a moment where public education is an increasingly radical notion, our standing here is no small feat. We are the mark of both excellence and defiance.”

Graduates, this is no small feat! Go forth in excellence and defiance, to build the world anew.


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